Small World: Getting Russia right


Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Get a grip on your rocking chairs — brace yourselves — steady on: I, a certified liberal, am going to write something positive about President Trump. You might say that a leader dedicated to sweeping changes in policy and style is bound to be on target once in awhile. Or you might call him a closet liberal.

I don’t know about the statistics, but I find that I am in much closer alignment with his perspective on Russia than with the seeming majority of foreign policy establishmentarians (a.k.a. the “Blob”) in the major parties. Many, maybe most, of them see a malevolent Russia hand manipulating last November’s election results. I agree with the president in calling that a “ruse.” I’ve not seen a stitch of convincing evidence to that effect. “Can’t reveal sources and methods,” they will [always] say. “Trust us,” they demand.

“The U.S. is not Gambia, not even Italy. It is big, complex, and powerful; hardly easy to manipulate,” I rebut. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong; history will judge.

The Blob thinks/seems to hope that the Cold War continues. Russian destabilizing support for the enemy in Ukraine and Syria and for other nations and groups we don’t care for is heated-up Cold War tactics, they explain.

I prefer the explanation offered by a scholarly friend from the Foreign Service: Russia is experiencing the collapse of an empire and the tensions and conflicts that have historically accompanied such events. Think of the fall of Austria-Hungary and World War I that followed. When the central power that dominates a diverse group of peoples weakens, internal forces turn on it and on each other. Outsiders enter to pick up the pieces. Think of the turmoil in the Middle East that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and then its successors, England and France.

Thus goes Russia. Not only did Moscow lose its component republics, but its binding ideology, communism, was discredited. First, Georgia and small Moslem entities like Chechnya proved difficult, then, the dearest of them all, Ukraine, showed signs of being wooed away by the Western powers that broke their promise not to push NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders.

Is it surprising that Moscow would want to protect the industrialized, Russian-inclined areas of Ukraine and to annex the strategically important Crimea? We and the Europeans insert ourselves on Ukraine’s side and that convinces the Russians we want to weaken them permanently.

The same happens in Syria, which used to be part of Russia’s domain the Middle East. A revolt against their client Assad is financed by Saudi and Gulf money and aided by Turkey. Moscow will not allow itself to be driven out (and thereby also reinforce the Sunni Chechnyan rebels at home).

Against this background, Mr. Trump is not arguing for an expanded NATO in Eastern Europe. As best as I can understand his thoughts — which appear to contradict some others in his administration — he would end sanctions, recognize Russia’s legacy interests in its neighborhood, and cease the unwinnable campaign to get Moscow to return the Crimea to Ukraine.

Similarly, it seems Mr. Trump would cooperate with Russia to end the struggle against the terrorist Islamic State (ISIL) and recognize the Assad regime as the best prospect for maintaining a measure of stability in Syria. He might also (and here I’m quite uncertain) enlist Russia’s help in restraining Iran in the region and on the nuclear front.

Wise intentions, if true. He would certainly distress hawks in the Congress, promoting deep worries that their long-established comfort zone of known enemies was subject to radical change. A true détente with Moscow would also mean that the national security budget could be safely cut back. Another reason for hawkish disquiet. “America First,” I would say.

On a related subject: While we’re in a positive frame of mind, I think the president is right to shuffle off the transgender portfolio to the states and local governments. It’s not that big a deal and the country is not ready for a major debate on the rights and wrongs of this issue.

But there are a lot more policies that generate only my deep, deep disagreement with the new bunch in Washington. Stand by.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service officer.

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